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Dale Chihuly: A Selective Biography

All About Glass

Dale Chihuly, who was born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1941, has become an internationally celebrated personality in contemporary art and design whose prominence in the field of contemporary studio glass is unmatched. He is a generous and charismatic individual with a forceful personality, who ceaselessly promotes himself and his material—glass—to audiences around the world. For those who might question the influence of a single artist on what has become a sizable international community, try imagining what the early American studio glass movement—or international glass today—would be without Chihuly. It is impossible to deny the magnitude and pervasiveness of his influence.

Dale Chihuly at Pilchuck Glass School, Stanwood, WA During his many years as a teacher, Chihuly made a point of gathering artists from all media to work with him and with glass, with the aim of introducing new points of view and infusing new energy into the process of glassworking. In 1969, he took leadership of an important glass program at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence, and two years later, he founded Pilchuck Glass School, the premier international school for glass artists, with the Seattle art patrons Anne Gould Hauberg and John Hauberg. Students combined glass and other media in both glassblowing and installation work—often compensating in creative presentation for what they lacked in technique—and they were always encouraged by Chihuly to approach the material in unorthodox ways. With these achievements alone, Chihuly would be recognized for his enduring impact on the American studio glass movement, but he has been able to pursue a prolific and successful career as an artist as well.

Macchia Seaform Group, 1982.From the beginning of his involvement with glass in the 1960s, Dale Chihuly has championed the use of blown glass as a vehicle for sculpture, focusing on the vessel in his explorations of color and form. Setting aside complex techniques in favor of letting the hot glass naturally find its own shape, he has produced work that is characterized by its large, gravity-influenced forms and minimal tooling as much as by its striking palette of colors. Drawing from the unconscious, he infuses his ambiguous forms with passionate colors, creating vessels that communicate a range of aesthetic experience—from the ephemeral moods represented by a single Macchia [see 2009.4.99] or nested Seaform [83.4.45] to the highly emotional, transformational environments realized in large-scale installations such as the Persians [2007.4.149] or Chandeliers [2008.4.2].

While Chihuly’s work has changed dramatically throughout his nearly 50-year career, certain preferences have remained the same. He has always worked glass in a variety of sizes, from small vessels to room-size installations. He has always been interested in sculpture and in outdoor projects where the landscape may be used as a point of departure. Color, on the other hand, has been a gradual acquisition, from the muted, relatively monochromatic 1970s works, such as the Blanket Cylinders [see 2007.4.147] and early Seaforms, to the brilliant colors of the Macchias and Venetians in the 1980s and beyond.

Chihuly was introduced to glass in 1964, when, as a weaving student, he made large and small tapestries incorporating strips of fused glass and metal. He did not begin blowing glass until a year or so later. During the latter half of the 1960s, Chihuly studied with Harvey Littleton at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, finished his graduate work at RISD, worked in Murano, and then began teaching at RISD in 1969. While his first students at RISD and Pilchuck focused on the type of expressionistic blobs that were so popular in the early 1970s, "the idea of making goblets and vases was not what we were really interested in doing," Chihuly says. "We did a lot of experimental, temporary projects. It was a time when you didn't think about permanency in any way."

Beginning in the summer of 1971, temporary outdoor projects were undertaken at Pilchuck that included hot glass “events” as well as sculptural “installations” in different locales. In one project, Chihuly blew and then floated a series of glass bubbles on the water of a small pond. When the water dried up a couple of weeks later, the bubbles disappeared along with the pond. In 1995, as part of his ambitious “Chihuly over Venice” project, Chihuly and a team of 30 workers made chandeliers at the Iittala Glassworks in Nuutajärvi, Finland. During their time there, Chihuly devised a performance in which he took chandelier elements and tossed them into the river. He also made ephemeral outdoor installations of sculptural glass elements along the river. These events directly recalled the work that Chihuly had done at Pilchuck some 25 years earlier, and they emphasized his continued interest in this type of artistic activity.

Navajo Blanket Cylinder (Serape Style 1865), Providence, RI, 1975.Chihuly may be even better known for his vessels, which he began to develop in the late 1960s. From this period until well into the 1980s, he focused all of his interest in sculpture on the vessel, making individual pieces as well as installations that gradually increased in size as the technical capabilities of his team and his facilities grew. The Navajo Blanket Cylinders [see 2007.4.142] and Baskets of the mid- and late 1970s [see 2012.4.160] were inspired by Native American art, specifically Navajo textiles and a display of old Native American baskets that the artist had seen in a Tacoma museum. From this direction, Chihuly turned, in the early 1980s, to his Seaforms and Macchias, his glass vessels aggressively gaining in size and color. By the late 1980s, he had begun his Persians series, which gradually evolved from nested Seaform-like groupings to more dramatic groupings of large and small forms, and then to monumental wall, ceiling, and floor installations.

The Persians were Chihuly’s first works to incorporate forms based on ancient and historical glass prototypes. This new interest in tooled, articulated, and decorated form was later exploited in the Venetians, a series Chihuly began in 1988 with Lino Tagliapietra [see 89.4.9]. Although Chihuly had known Tagliapietra for many years, he had not considered collaborating with him, knowing that his freer style had nothing in common with the technically intensive Venetian one. However, Chihuly had begun to look at Italian glass of the 1920s to 1940s by designers such as Napoleone Martinuzzi and Carlo Scarpa, and he was intrigued by these works. With Tagliapietra, Chihuly entered a new phase of intensely decorated, elaborately worked, and brilliantly colored vessels whose decorations, rather than forms, became the focus of Chihuly’s sculptural expression. In the 1990s, Chihuly would continue in this vein with a series of Putti vessels made in collaboration with another Muranese master, Pino Signoretto [see 2007.4.151].

In reviewing Chihuly’s prolific and varied oeuvre, his most daring and important works are his architectural and outdoor installations. In the 1970s, he collaborated with James Carpenter on a number of installations using neon and ice, as well as sculptural glass elements, to create environments. Chihuly did not focus again on this type of activity until the later 1980s, when he gradually developed his Persians to interact with architectural settings, making all sorts of wall and window installations before moving to ceilings and floors. The Persian ceilings are particularly remarkable for their transformational and transcendent qualities, and they have become a kind of symbolic, ceremonial architecture.

Chihuly has always been interested in architecture, landscape, and glass of super-heroic scale, and when he moves his attention from object to environment, the result is nothing less than spectacular. Temporary outdoor projects such as the 1996 “Chihuly over Venice,” “Chihuly in the Light of Jerusalem 2000,” and his more recent exhibitions in botanical gardens are unheard of in the craft-associated media to which glass belongs. Chihuly's singular mixture of ambition, vision, and enchantment comes closest to that of contemporary Land artists, such as Christo. These types of projects not only involve the temporary transformation of architecture and landscape, but also engage a diverse group of people—including artists and fabricators, builders, landowners, city officials, media, and members of the public—who participate with the artist in the artistic activity/performance.

Fern Green Tower, Seattle, WA, 1999.The energetic masses of color and light that are known as the Towers and Chandeliers, which Chihuly has produced in a constellation of colors, are now the artist’s most widely known works [see 2000.4.6]. Chihuly introduced this sculptural form in his solo exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum in 1992, and he further developed it for his Venice project. Exuberant in spirit and ambitious in scope, these large-scale glass sculptures are housed in museums, concert halls, corporate offices, public spaces, and private residences around the world.

Chihuly’s most recent installations have focused on the idea of the garden, which stems from his first outdoor works at Pilchuck and his later, monumental Persians installations. The garden is a place of physical and spiritual delight that represents the perfect world, or paradise, and Chihuly’s installations at the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago (2001) and “Mille Fiori” (A Thousand Flowers) at the Tacoma Museum of Art (2003) are truly spaces in which physical and spiritual delights reign. The resounding popularity of the gardens and other Chihuly environments demonstrates the importance of, and need for, the aesthetic experience—the experience of moments of beauty, revelation, and transcendence that are the antithesis of the everyday.

Although Chihuly’s objects are much discussed and sought after by collectors and museums, it is the large-scale installations and outdoor works that best reflect his expansive vision. Public projects, such as the Chandeliers adorning the canals of Venice, the Towers emerging from the ruins of the Temple of David in Jerusalem, and the Gardens of glass, are testaments to Chihuly’s extraordinary energy and passion. Throughout his career, Chihuly has played the roles of glass heretic, auteur, catalyst, and magus: he is a demanding artist for whom glass, a demanding medium, has performed its radiant and enchanting best.

Published on May 22, 2013